Kevin Fagan / San Francisco Chronicle – 2011-04-06 02:37:04
SAN FRANCISCO (April 3, 2011) — The window curtain is a bedsheet. The kitchen is a tiny sink. It takes just five paces to cross the entire length of the day-to-day residential hotel room.
Jerry Wiseman, 42, doesn’t mind these things that much. A Marine sergeant in the 1991 Gulf War, he is proud of his ability to live lean. But he wouldn’t mind more. And counselors who run programs for homeless military veterans say he should have more — to help him move from what is considered a state of homelessness into permanent housing, where he can count on his future enough to rebuild a career.
“My last job was six years ago, as a bookstore clerk,” said Wiseman, who struggles by on a government disability check and is in physical therapy for a back injury. “I’d sure like to do that work again, but it’s a little tough when you’re living day to day.”
The most dependable way, since 2008, to give former warriors such as Wiseman a permanent place to live has been a federal housing voucher that pays as much as 70 percent of the rent for homeless veterans while they get their lives back on track. But that program is in danger of being chopped to the bone.
GOP Singles Out Vouchers
The fiscal 2011-12 budget proposed in the House of Representatives by the Republican majority would eliminate funding for all 10,000 vouchers that the government plans to issue for veterans next year. The program that generates the vouchers, a joint project of the departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development, is the only one of its kind.
It’s also considered a linchpin of President Obama’s goal, announced last year, of eliminating homelessness among vets by 2015. In places such as San Francisco, which hosts the most ambitious housing program in Northern California for homeless veterans, the prospect of losing the vouchers has counselors and veterans advocates blanching. They say it would be a damaging blow to recent advances in housing homeless vets.
Since the voucher program started in 2008, federal figures show, homelessness among veterans nationally has fallen 18 percent to 136,000 — a drop that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki attributed partly to the housing vouchers. Thirty thousand vouchers have been handed out in that time.
“The momentum is on our side,” said Roberta Rosenthal, coordinator of homelessness programs for the VA’s Western region. “This is no time to stop doing what has been working,” she said. “We need more vouchers, not less. The train is on the track and moving along — for it to hit a brick wall right now would be very sad.”
Last year, 175 homeless veterans in San Francisco received vouchers, out of more than 500 who applied. Statewide, the need is just as great — more demand than the vouchers can meet.
California has more homeless veterans than any other state — about 20,000, or 26 percent of the nation’s total, according to HUD — and studies from Stanford University and others have shown that new veterans who hit the streets suffer proportionately more post-traumatic stress disorder than their predecessors.
“The mean-spiritedness of this proposed cut is breathtaking,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “We’re going to fight this all the way.”
She and her allies will have a tough battle, however, because the Republican majority in the House will make it hard to muster enough votes to fund the vouchers. With a record $1.65 trillion federal deficit looming this fiscal year, budget cuts are inevitable at all levels of government.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield and majority whip in the House, maintains that because about 10,000 vouchers for veterans are still being allocated from previous years, there is no need to authorize more in tight times.
“The congressman agrees that we have no greater responsibility than to those who have sacrificed to defend our freedom,” said McCarthy spokeswoman Andrea McCarthy (no relation). The voucher effort “is a good program to help homeless veterans,” she said, “and the congressman supports the program as it currently stands.”
Making the Transition
Rosenthal said portraying the program as having thousands of unused vouchers isn’t accurate. “Some vouchers get returned after people don’t need them anymore, or the vet has died, and we can reallocate them,” she said. “And it can take months to process someone who is chronically homeless into housing. It’s not like we aren’t using them.”
Hobert Lee, 52, got his voucher through the Swords to Plowshares Veterans Academy on Treasure Island.
“The voucher made a tremendous difference in my life,” said Lee, who moved into his own apartment in San Francisco a year ago and now works as a pretrial counselor for the city’s court system. “It gave me the ability to maintain an affordable place in an area where there would not be temptation to backslide.”
Lee was a Marine from 1978 to 1982, and after being discharged as a sergeant, he found it hard to transition back into civilian life. A long period of homelessness, drug abuse and jail followed until he found refuge in the Swords to Plowshares program two years ago.
“If there’s not a way to help house people after they graduate from our Treasure Island program with their training and counseling, they will wind up back on the streets,” said Swords spokeswoman Colleen Corliss. “Cutting these vouchers would be disastrous.”
Reluctant to Seek Help
That goes for not just the chronically homeless, like Lee was, she said, but other types of vets who have no permanent roof. Like Wiseman, in his residential hotel. He came home from the Gulf War with post-traumatic stress disorder, and suffered from substance abuse problems until getting clean in the late 1990s. He doesn’t like asking for help, but he’d take a little if it came.
“I wouldn’t mind having a window that opens up to the outside,” he said. He’s applying for a voucher.
(c) 2011 Hearst Communications Inc.
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